The newest income numbers look better than a lot of veterinarians feel.
Median income for full-time private practitioners—comprising owners and associates—increased from $97,000 in 2009 to $100,000 in 2011, according to the recently released 2013 AVMA Report on Veterinary Compensation.
“Overall, veterinarians make good livings,” said Dr. Karen E. Felsted of Felsted Veterinary Consulting, former chief executive officer of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. “I think what’s difficult is maybe gross earnings aren’t as high as they used to be. And it costs more to run a practice, it costs more to live, student debt is higher.”
Median gross practice revenue decreased from $822,804 in 2009 to $728,640 in 2011, according to the 2013 AVMA Report on Veterinary Practice Business Measures, after increasing for each two-year period between 2001 and 2009.
Among other findings from the reports, median income for veterinarians in public and corporate practice—including academia, government, and industry—increased from $109,000 in 2009 to $124,000 in 2011. Female veterinarians still have lower incomes than male veterinarians in private practice and in public and corporate practice (see page 879
The new reports draw on results from the AVMA Biennial Economic Survey of 2012, along with results of previous surveys. The 2012 survey collected data for the 2011 calendar year.
Companion animal practice
As in private practice altogether, the median income was $100,000 in 2011 for veterinarians in both companion animal–exclusive and –predominant practice. Income numbers for veterinarians in private practice comprise salary, bonuses, practice profits, consulting fees, and contributions to retirement or profit-sharing plans.
Income is not commensurate with the expertise of veterinarians, said Dr. Kate Knutson, president of the American Animal Hospital Association and co-owner of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital & Dental Clinic outside Minneapolis.
“The hospitals and clinics are trying their hardest to bring quality medicine to their clients, and all that equipment and training has a huge cost to it,” Dr. Knutson said. Partly as a result, she said, practices cannot afford to pay veterinarians enough for a decent living—especially considering the increase in student debt.
She said one factor influencing practice revenues is a divergence in client expectations, with some clients expecting basic veterinary care and some expecting the state of the art.
Dr. Knutson believes practices need to focus their efforts on particular types of clients and services. Her practice, for example, focuses on wellness and dentistry.
“This is a great profession, it’s a phenomenal profession,” Dr. Knutson said. “We just need to find a way that we can make enough money to pay off our student debt and to have a decent standard of living.”
Mean income continues to be higher than median income in private practice, reflecting the high incomes of some veterinarians. Dr. Felsted noted that mean income decreased in companion animal–exclusive practice between 2009 and 2011, and she speculated that high-end companion animal practitioners might be a little tapped out.
Dr. Felsted cited multiple factors as contributing to soft practice revenues.
“Part of it could be because fewer people are visiting, and that could be because of the economy or because they’re getting their information from the Internet or whatever,” she said. “But it could also be that there are more veterinarians out there, and the income is getting spread around among a greater number of veterinarians and a greater number of practices.”
Food animal, equine practice
As in companion animal practice, the median income was $100,000 in 2011 for veterinarians in both food animal–exclusive and –predominant practice. The median income was $88,000 for those in mixed animal practice.
The numbers belie the idea that food animal practice is the poor cousin of companion animal practice, said Dr. Nigel Cook, president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners and head of the Food Animal Production Medicine Section at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.
He said one difference is the time input. Food animal–exclusive practitioners work a median of 50 hours per week, while companion animal–exclusive practitioners work a median of 45 hours per week.
“If you just left out the cost of education, these are pretty good salaries,” Dr. Cook said. “If education is going to continue to cost what it is, which I don’t see changing very easily, then what are the ways we can increase practice revenues?”
He said food animal practitioners still face challenges in learning how to serve ever-larger farms and how to transition from emergency calls to a consulting role. He also expressed concern about a potential oversupply of veterinarians in food animal and companion animal practice as state universities enroll more veterinary students in response to state budget cuts.
In equine practice, the median income was $88,000 in 2011. Equine practitioners have been struggling in the wake of the recession and a decrease in the number of horses, said Dr. Ann Dwyer, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and co-owner of Genesee Valley Equine Clinic in Scottsville, N.Y.
“We’re going to have to raise the profit structure of our practices, and that means being better and smarter business owners,” she said.
Equine practice is innately inefficient, Dr. Dwyer said, as practitioners make ambulatory farm calls to see individual patients. Equine practitioners work a median of 55 hours per week.
Dr. Dwyer said equine practitioners will have to find ways not only to become more efficient but also to pass on some of their increasing costs to their remaining clients.
Public and corporate practice
Median income for veterinarians in public and corporate practice in 2011 ranged from $88,000 for state and local government to $112,000 for academia, federal government, and uniformed services to $160,000 for industry.
Dr. Cook said state budget cuts led many state universities to reduce employees’ pay, pensions, or other benefits in recent years. The median income for veterinarians in academia had remained constant, however, at $103,000 in 2007 and 2009, then increased to $112,000 in 2011.
“I think the economy is going to keep improving for the foreseeable future,” Dr. Cook said. “I think most of the states have done the difficult things.”
Veterinary specialists continue to have a lower median income in public and corporate practice than in private practice. Specialists had a median income of $136,000 in public and corporate practice, in comparison with $148,000 in private practice.
The AVMA has released the 2013 AVMA Report on Veterinary Compensation and 2013 AVMA Report on Veterinary Practice Business Measures in book form and as downloadable PDF files.